THEATRE / Tooth and claw: Paul Taylor on Ken Hill's The Curse of the Werewolf

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The Independent Culture
A full moon, a wolf howling into the chill night air. It's an image that's more likely to conjure up The Late Show these days than creepy tales of lycanthropy and werewolfdom in far-flung Gothic haunts. I'm surprised that Ken Hill hasn't managed to sneak a sly reference to the culture-slot into his new 'monster musical', The Curse of the Werewolf at Stratford East, for though the piece is set in 'Walpurgisdorf', 1922, there's no dearth of topically angled gags.

'Am I the only one to recognise the face under all that hair?' asks an incognito English Lord (Robin Nedwell), after a marauding visit from the savage wolfman. Inspector Kruger, of the prosthetic hand and the yodel that would make vulpine hairs stand on end, is unimpressed by the identification. 'I need evidence,' he maintains. To which m'lord chips back with, 'Why, you're a policeman, aren't you?'

It will be apparent that the show has the same tongue-in- cheek spirit that made this team's recent version of The Invisible Man a big hit. My favourite bits of the current confection were the thoroughly silly ones. There's a wonderful moment when the young English girl, Kitty (Diana Morrison), out on a walk in the Walpurgisdorf woods with the young Baron (Steven Pacey), discovers a rose without a thorn growing in the middle of winter by a quagmire. If that's not a cue for a Germanic love duet, then I don't know what is. While the couple wrap their tonsils round it, a positively absurd number of fluffy creatures pop up and waggle innocently in the foliage so that the Sylvan scene takes on a resemblance to a window display at Hamley's. But nature soon reverts to being red in tooth and claw, with the heroine, up to her neck in the bog, groped by a sinister clawed hand.

The songs are, frankly, no great shakes and there are patches where you may feel that an evening of harmless fun imposes its own kind of strain. An engaging cast stops your smile from getting too glassy, though: Terrence Hardiman is cod-dastardly as the mad German psychiatrist and, as his assistant, Toni Palmer is a loopy, exhibitionist delight as she performs complicated leg-kicks for an audience of howling wolves spying on her through the huge Gothic window.

The wolves aren't the only things that are long in the tooth in this tale of love. But then there's no joke like an old joke. Who could take a gun to a wereman who departs at full moon, announcing quite accurately that, 'I'm just going to change into something more comfortable.'

At the Theatre Royal, Stratford East (081-534 0310)